Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade
In 1919 when Rachel is four she loses her entire family one afternoon to an act of violence. Her mother is dead, her father flees and her older brother is put in an orphanage. Their caseworker tells the children that she will do her best to find them an adoptive family quickly where they can be together again, but until that time Rachel is placed in the Jewish Orphaned Infant Home. At the home Rachel is placed in a crib and due to her good health becomes a subject in an experiment, she is orphan #8, to test the efficacy of x-rays on removing tonsils. When the caseworker returns in a few weeks she doesn’t find the bubbly little girl she left there but a sickly little thing she knows she would never be able to place. Not only are Rachel’s tonsils removed, so is all the hair on her body, and it never grows back.
In the 1950s Rachel is now a nurse working at the Old Hebrews Home on the fifth floor where terminal residents spend their last days. Rachel finds a lump in her breast and is pretty sure she knows what that means, and that the x-rays caused her cancer. One day on rounds Rachel meets a new patient who is dying of cancer, Dr. Solomon, the woman who experimented on Rachel as a girl. Will Rachel exact revenge? Or can she begin to understand Dr. Solomon’s reasons and forgive her?
I really enjoyed the way the story unfolded. We see the story of Rachel’s past from the time she was four until she is about sixteen and with that story her current life in the 1950s, only about a two week period, is told in alternating chapters. You really know and understand Rachel, her good choices and bad, and empathize with her at every turn. Rachel wants to belong and have a family again but fate and her own blossoming sexuality, which society tells her is wrong, keeps making her feel separate from the world.
I listened and read this book to make it go faster because I wanted to know what happened next! While the story is more leisurely paced it doesn’t feel like a slow read. Fans of historical fiction and psychological stories, like those written by Jodi Picoult, will enjoy this story.